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The Strike Zone

The thorny issue of Barry Bonds' Cooperstown candidacy

Five years after he became baseball's career home run king, Barry Bonds' Hall of Fame chances are murkier than ever. (Brad Mangin/SI)

Tuesday marked the five-year anniversary of Barry Bonds surpassing Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list by hitting his 756th round-tripper in a game against the Nationals. The opportunity to mark the historic homer went largely unnoticed and uncelebrated, because these days Bonds is viewed as a pariah due to allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs during the latter part of his career. First implicated as part of the BALCO scandal in late 2003, he was indicted in late 2007 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice based upon his grand jury testimony in the case. After a long delay, Bonds finally went on trial in March 2011, where he was convicted on one count of obstruction of justice for giving an evasive answer when asked if trainer Greg Anderson had given him anything that required him to inject himself. The judge declared a mistrial on three remaining counts of making false statements to the grand jury. Bonds is appealing his conviction, while the government has yet to decide whether it will retry him.

This winter, Bonds will face another jury. With his career having ended following the 2007 season — involuntarily, as he desired to continue playing even past the age of 42 but didn't receive any contract offers — he is eligible to be voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He'll appear on a ballot alongside Roger Clemens, who himself was acquitted of perjury and obstruction charges back in June, and Sammy Sosa, who allegedly failed a 2003 PED survey test that was intended to be anonymous. For those who look forward to the annual vote, this one promises to be a lot less enjoyable due to the polarizing debate over how to handle the stars from the game's so-called "Steroid Era."

In a recent interview with MLB.com's Barry Bloom, Bonds stated his belief that he belongs in the Hall. "There's not a doubt in my mind," he said. But will he get in? Even as the holder of the career and single-season home run marks, the answer remains unclear. Thus far, the BBWAA voters have taken a harsh view of the Hall of Fame cases of players connected to PEDs.

Mark McGwire, a 12-time All-Star who in 1998 toppled Roger Maris' long-standing single-season home run record and who finished with 583 career homers (now 10th all-time) is 0-for-6 in front of the voters. First up for induction on the 2007 ballot, he received 23.5 percent of the vote, less than one-third of the 75 percent needed for induction. He maxed out at 23.7 percent in 2010, but since admitting what had long been suspected — that he used steroids during his career — his support has fallen under 20 percent. Rafael Palmeiro, the fourth player ever to reach both the 3,000 hit and 500 home run milestones — numbers that used to guarantee induction — but also the first star player to be suspended for failing a steroid test, is 0-for-2. He received just 11.0 percent in his first appearance on the ballot in 2011, and climbed to only 12.6 percent on the most recent ballot. Juan Gonzalez, who won two AL MVP awards and hit 434 homers in his career but was named in the Mitchell Report, drew 5.2 percent of the vote in 2011, and fell off the ballot after drawing 4.0 percent this year.

Statistically, Bonds' case is far stronger than any of those players, not only due to his single-season and career home run records. He also holds the major league record for walks (2,558) and intentional walks (688), ranks second in times on base (5,599) and extra-base hits (1,440), third in runs scored (2,227) and fourth in total bases (5,976) and RBIs (1,996). He made 14 All-Star teams and won a record seven MVP awards. In terms of advanced metrics such as WAR and WARP, only Babe Ruth was a more valuable hitter.

The extent to which those numbers owe something to PED use is unknowable, and the same goes for any advantage such users may have gained on the field, a particularly thorny question when one considers that a significant percentage of players connected to the drugs have been pitchers. But for many BBWAA voters, that won't matter. In their eyes, Bonds and other PED users cheated and don't belong in the Hall of Fame, end of story.

Never mind the fact that cheating at baseball is as old as baseball itself. Sign-stealers and spitballers are in the Hall, including Gaylord Perry, who bragged openly about throwing the pitch long after it became illegal. Never mind that the Hall is a rogues' gallery full of individuals with worse sins of character, racists and Ku Klux Klan members, Prohibition-era alcoholics, cocaine users, amphetamine users, spousal abusers, sex addicts and so on. Even Judge Landis, the commissioner who penned the character clause cited by voters as a means of justifying exclusion of PED users, spent his 24-year tenure upholding the color line, and he's got a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.

And never mind that the steroid problem wasn't simply a matter of players using banned substances in order to gain some nebulous advantage. This was a complete institutional failure that implicated the entire sport. Anabolic steroids were added to the Controlled Substances Act as far back as 1990, and explicitly banned by commissioner Fay Vincent in 1991, but the ban had no means of enforcement under the game's Collective Bargaining Agreement, a situation that held after Vincent was ousted by the owners in favor of Bud Selig. Owners were loathe to go after stars they suspected of using, and far busier fighting a seemingly endless labor war to try to break the players' union and hold down salaries to push for enforcement or more stringent rules. Their attempt to eliminate salary arbitration, restrict free agency and institute revenue sharing tied to a salary cap led to the 1994-1995 strike, after which they were more interested in winning back fans by any means necessary — even absurd home run totals.

Meanwhile, the union refused to police itself, and the media who covered the game and celebrated the home run boom failed to report what it saw happening as usage became more widespread. Recognition of their own complicity in the problem has led some voters to suggest that they have no place serving as moral arbiters when it comes to the Hall of Fame voting. ESPN's Buster Olney, who in a 2006 New York Times Op-Ed piece admitted that he could have done a better job reporting what he saw regarding PEDs, more recently suggested that usage was so widespread — above 50 percent — that voters have only two real choices: "You can vote for no one from the era, or you can put the issue aside and vote for the best players, and that's what I did."

Other prominent voters, such as the New York Post's Ken Davidoff, a past president of the BBWAA, have distinguished between usage that took place before the rules were enforced (starting in 2004, though the first suspensions didn't occur until 2005), and that which took place afterwards; he is on record as voting for McGwire, who never tested positive, but not Palmeiro, who did. He plans to vote for both Bonds and Clemens.

The wide consensus among voters is that Bonds certainly isn't going to get in on the first ballot. Unless he receives less than five percent of the vote — highly unlikely given the precedents of McGwire and Palmeiro — he'll have 14 more years to gain entry. It may be several years before he gets in, but the evolution of the electorate — which began admitting members of the electronic media (such as Rob Neyer, Keith Law, Christina Karhl and even this writer) — in recent years could work in his favor. So too might the pressure on voters to hold their noses and recognize that the Hall is a private institution whose revenue is based upon tourism; a failure to accurately reflect the era as part of baseball history may doom it — and by extension, the voting body — to irrelevance. It certainly won't be a pretty process, but in time, Bonds should get his bronze plaque.
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